Zachary Zalman Green currently resides in Minneapolis with no pets to speak of, refers to himself as a “flatlander”, and maintains mountains in his head. He is the co-founding editor of Ghost Proposal magazine. Green’s work has appeared in interrupture, Whiskey Island, Ilk, Columbia Poetry Review, Jellyfish Magazine, and elsewhere. He was selected as an honorable mention in nonfiction judged by Johnathan Lethem for plain china’s national anthology of best undergraduate writing 2011, and a recipient of the 2010 and 2011 Elma Stuckey Poetry Award. He sat down with us to chat about his writing playlist, Ginsberg, Ruefle, and his poetry path.
Can we talk about your poetry path? How did you end up here? Where else did you think you were going to go? What does here even look like?
Poetry, and I guess a lot of where I am now, almost always has felt accidental. In high school I considered myself a wannabe journalist and when the beat of cafeteria politics dried up I started a zine with a friend. At the time we thought we were the only ones who needed to contribute. It was called Ink Stains & Coffee Flowers. To this day I love how juvenile the whole operation was, from the title to its production. My friend Leah and I would throw together an issue, splash some ink on it as if we were Ralph Steadman disciples, and then make copies at her dad’s law office late at night. So this was kind of my first attempt at writing for an audience and having the hubris to think I had content worth sharing.
That very same friend told me about Columbia College Chicago. At the time it had the only undergraduate program where you could study poetry, specifically. However, yet again, when I went to visit, I thought that I was going to study fiction, my “poetry” hadn’t taken shape yet. Having a negative reaction to that department all together I enrolled in the poetry program, maybe largely because one of the first faculty I met there was a Red Sox fan which appealed to my father and a Ginsberg scholar which appealed to me.
However, in my senior year of college I was having doubts. I had some teachers telling me to pursue grad school which then was a conventional way of saying go spend more money so you can publish a book and get teaching gigs (and probably still is). I thought I was going to quit it all together and become a cheese farmer or an architect, I had at least told my friends as much. Then I moved back to NH, and did neither of those things. I got a job at an art gallery, I started a magazine, I left the magazine, and quite frankly, around 2013/2014 started to see my way out of poetry.
Here to me now looks a lot like letting each day unfold, but truly in that way. I don’t have much control over it anymore and I am not too concerned about that. In my early-twenties I was horribly fucking stubborn about goals and needing to be settled into a comfortable life. Now I freelance in the film industry and work in the strangest of places from week to week, day to day. So if here is a thing, it is being and trying to identify that presence of mind when it happens, then maybe writing a thing or two from there.
What about inspiration? What were you reading/seeing/thinking about when you wrote The Number You Are Trying to Reach? What was the publication process for that like?
The thing with being inspired is that we often think it has to railroad us into the ground, or that we have to travel and blow any kind of savings on doing so (which I have done too many times now). TNYATTR was more subtle than that and the thing about the book is that it’s not poetry, poetic maybe, but not poetry.
I had just moved back east from Seattle and considered the whole thing a total failure. Before I left I had going away parties, I packed up everything, gave away my drum kit, wasn’t coming back to New Hampshire. And then of course, I just…did, I came back with my tail between my legs. And I took the long way back, nearly losing my mind in Kansas and my 2006 Honda CR-V breaking down on Staten Island, with some sort of bizarre breakup happening on top of all of that. I quickly accelerated to bottom and at 25 you feel entitled to nothing but many victories, great brunches.
So anyway, I was feeling nostalgic one afternoon, and had my desk set up in my sister’s old bedroom at my parents house. I charged up my old cell phone and was thinking of a few people and began listening to their voicemails, which for whatever reason I never deleted. For the longest time I had no way to communicate what happened in Seattle and didn’t really want to get into what that realization of actually being poor and entirely on your own feels like, when you are just sort of cut off and horribly depressed; it’s very human and maybe even common so I knew I had to get at it from a different way. However, it was still too close to exchange words with. I thought that I would let those people tell the story, it seemed fitting, everyone checked in and often, as if they knew I was miserable without me ever needing to say so, and sometimes I did. The book carries on that way, it’s everyone who meant something to me then weighing in or shaping my life, or taking away from it. There’s a whole narrative just in the omission of myself from the book.
At the time I think I was reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness Rack and Honey. They are essays that are entirely about being a poet without being a poet. And I love that. To this day it’s still kind of a gross word to me, I mean I use it a lot because it is convenient and among writers they know what you are talking about, and among lay people they either want to kiss you or ridicule you up into that tree you were daydreaming under (because that is all we do, right?). I was falling in love with creative nonfiction at the time as well and the possibilities there, to be completely confessional while also tailoring your manner of writing into being more palatial.
It took me until about August 2016 to finally complete the manuscript. I had thought of having a friend put it out who lives in Seattle but had also wanted to see if it had any legs at a press outside of people I knew. I initially submitted it to a small press in Portland, OR who had put out a book by my editor, Delphine Bedient (Down and Out on a Yacht). I was absolutely in love with Delphine’s work and the care with which it was printed, a simple letterpress dust jacket and hundreds of vignettes of simple and tragic happenings. The press ended up passing on my manuscript but cleverly sent it along to Delphine and she wrote back saying it was perfect for her imprint, Quotidian Press. I have had work picked up by journals here and there but never had any luck with my poetry manuscript coming out of undergrad so it was really refreshing at how nearly effortless it seemed, or rather that I had finally found the right place with the right project. In any case, we spent a lot longer editing the manuscript than I thought would be possible, especially since they were verbatim voicemail transcriptions. Delphine is absolutely meticulous and did a beautiful job taking this book to the next level.
You co-founded Ghost Proposal. Can you talk a bit about that?
Out of poetry college I knew two things: you must start a journal and host a reading series to maintain relevancy in that world. Of course I am being facetious, but I really thought that is what it took and then eventually that initiative would get me a job in publishing on a larger scale or that I could put out books and make a living that way. One, it’s not nearly as inventive or easy as it seems (thanks Donald Trump, being a poet was harder than I thought), and two, you’ll try anything to make a return on going blindingly into debt for studying poetry as an undergrad and eventually find you have to think about your future in broader terms, maybe.
Careerism aside, I had met Naomi, my co-editor who is now Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal, via some letters of mine that she was editing for another journal, plain china, an anthology of undergraduate writing. She was an absolutely astounding editor to work with and I needed to meet her. So we got some pizza in Bennington, VT and talked about having a journal together (sounds kind of like having a baby), and then hung out in her bucolic red house in a mountain valley, and talked more about it. Then a few months later, when I was living in Northampton, MA I was biking alongside a river through some reeds and the title came to me, so I texted her ‘ghost proposal.’ We put out three issues together, I loved doing it and being the new kids on the block, so-to-speak, who were somehow able to entice nationally recognized writers to contribute just because we asked. However, it was my first time really running a journal and developing a staff and doing so collaboratively. I fucked a few things up and a few things that were beyond my control lead me to eventually leaving the magazine. Naomi is still running it to this day and doing a fantastic job (also, they have a chapbook contest going on right now and you all should submit to it)!
If you had to make a writing playlist, what 10 songs would be on there.
“The Glow Pt. 2” – The Microphones
“Haunt” – Pile
“C.L. Rosarian” – Mutual Benefit
“Crown” – Run The Jewels
“My Old Friend” – Sam Amidon
“White Fire” – Angel Olsen
“Sitting Around Waiting To Die” – Townes Van Zandt
” ‘Ol 55″ – Tom Waits
“Girl From The North Country” – Bob Dylan
“High Rise” – Cross Record
I could do this all day. I used think that scoring a film meant you just picked out the music for the soundtrack and I wanted to have that job. Still do.
Would you rather every piece of art you see be a May Ray piece or have every song you hear be a Frank Ocean song? I’m not giving you a lot of options here, but this will help us understand you a bit better.
I think a Frank Ocean song. Music does something to me that 2D or 3D work can’t touch. Also I always remember the lyrics as “Got a fresh pair of Nikes” and it’s a nice thought because I always wonder how people who really invest in their Nike game keep them so damn clean! I can’t do it.
What’s your opinion on the “state of poetry”?
I think the moment we put something into a “state”, we isolate it. Like the state of Israel, for example, who doesn’t feel beholden to identify Palestine as a state, to be political for a moment. I use this example because it is extreme and I think it can be extreme to classify in such ways. I think the state of poetry is that it lives in a world unto itself and that is dangerous, that is why few people outside of those who write it, read it, and largely why I ran away from the writing world for a while. It’s probably why I also come off as cynical about it. I think poetry is and more often than not, benefits from being a state of being or living. If we live our lives poetically, we write better (ideally) and are still present and involved in the world. I am still wary about writing in our current climate if what I am saying is not directly/indirectly to the end of freeing us in some way. I still haven’t figured that out exactly but I am trying to make it more of a conscious effort.
If anything though, I am learning now that I can’t be caught up in the ‘why’ or ‘what’ is going to happen to poetry but that we must continue to write or create in some capacity because it is really our last weapon of change for those charged with having such an outlet or talent, if you will.
What are you reading right now? What did you start reading but stopped 10 minutes later and haven’t started again?
Right now I am reading a few things,10th of December by George Saunders which is totally surprising and fresh and moving to me and Jane Wong’s Overpour, which is fucking flawless. I started reading Farenheit 451 because I am so embarrassed about how few classic novels I have read but put it down because it wasn’t too long after the election and it was just too much.
If there is any book you could have written but didn’t, what would it be?
I would have loved to have written Actual Air by David Berman. It’s pitch-perfect in my mind and the dude just went away after writing it. I wish we all had the wisdom to sometimes just stop and find the new or next thing.
And, finally, what’s a day-in-the-life like for Zachary?
If I am not working on a film set (which is my current occupation), I am usually seeking out the best bowl of ramen in Minneapolis, riding my bike to a lake, pitching my hammock with some kinda new beverage I am trying out that week, a book, a fruit thing and staying put until the sun falls out of the sky. So yeah, sleeping under trees, okay. But until I do that, I am likely in bed for a while, thinking that I need to be writing more.